Schools leaders draft plan to put technology into classrooms

Schools leaders draft plan to put technology into classrooms

Michele Ellson

Schools leaders are drafting a fresh plan to integrate technology into Alameda’s classrooms.

The plans are required in order for the school district to be eligible for state and federal technology grants and for a discount on telecommunications costs district officials estimated at between $350,000 and $400,000 a year. But unlike prior plans that were essentially unfunded, the goals outlined in the new, three-year plan will be backed at least in part by Measure A parcel tax money.

A draft plan presented to the school board on Tuesday night outlines how the district hopes to integrate technology into students’ lessons and use it to boost outcomes for special education students, English learners and other groups who consistently struggle with standardized tests. The plan also addresses how the district will meet fresh state and federal mandates around student etiquette and safety on the Internet and expectations that testing now conducted using pencil and paper will someday be done online.

“This is not about tools or gimmicks or hardware or software. This is about how we change instruction,” Assistant Superintendent Sean McPhetridge told the board on Tuesday.

The plan is to be finalized in February 2013, after district administrators gather additional input on its contents.

An epic recession zeroed out state funds that once paid for computers and other classroom technology and shifted California school districts’ focus from pushing learning into an increasingly digital future to keeping teachers in the classroom and schoolhouse doors open for a full school year. But voter approval of the seven-year, $12 million a year Measure A parcel tax – five percent of which was designated for technology staff and purchases – gave the school district money to fund technological advances it hadn’t had for years.

“I think we’re in a rare spot because of Measure A,” Alameda Unified’s chief business officer, Robert Shemwell, said during an interview Tuesday. “We’re able to start building budgets that start supporting technology in the school district.”

Superintendent Kirsten Vital told the school board on Tuesday that she plans to ask the board to okay additional spending for technology to try to catch Alameda’s schools up with current trends, and that additional work to identify what’s needed in classrooms is pending.

Shemwell said the district’s schools should each have a functioning computer lab – or more than one, depending on the number of students a school serves – and that classrooms should be equipped with LCD projectors and document cameras, which are a modern version of the overhead projector that can display three dimensional objects in addition to paper and transparencies.

Another high priority is outfitting the district’s schools with the wireless capacity to handle mobile technology that gives students, teachers and parents access to information wherever and whenever they need it, he said.

The amount and type of technology available at the district’s 16 schools varies widely, statistics offered by the draft report show. For example, Encinal High School has eight electronic whiteboards known as “smart boards” while Alameda High has one, the report shows, and students at Bay Farm and Earhart elementary schools – each of which launched nontraditional “innovative” programs this year – have access to 40 iPads each, while four other elementary schools have none. And the number and type of computers available to students varies from school to school.

Without money to spend on technology, much of what schools possess was funded by parent donations to PTAs, Shemwell said, though he said varying needs also helped drive the differences. But Measure A funds have allowed the district to start balancing the scales.

About $43,000 of the roughly $250,000 in Measure A technology funds spent during the 2011-2012 school year went toward upgrading computers at schools that were in the most dire need of replacement and purchasing LCD projectors and document cameras for classrooms that lacked them. (A total of $340,348 was set aside for classroom technology purchases last year, with another $259,652 for technology staff.)

The district purchased 160 computers with Measure A funds through June 30, a spreadsheet obtained by The Alamedan through a public records request shows, along with 80 document cameras and 90 LCD projectors. Ruby Bridges Elementary School, which Shemwell said didn’t have any document cameras, received 26 of them, the spreadsheet shows.

The district is also upgrading schools’ wireless access in order to better accommodate mobile devices, a project that’s in the works this month and next, Shemwell said.

Additional technology funding was distributed to schools at a rate of $11 per student, to spend on technology they chose. Earhart, Franklin, Haight and Lincoln schools purchased smart boards with the funds, while Edison, Maya Lin, Paden and Ruby Bridges purchased laptops for staff and Encinal High School bought students responders, also known as “clickers,” which teachers can use to poll students to ensure they understand what’s being taught, the spreadsheet obtained by The Alamedan shows.

Alameda High School used the money – a little over $20,000 – to help create a multimedia lab, according to the spreadsheet and a community bulletin issued by the district earlier this month. Other schools spent money after the district’s books closed on June 30, and that spending will be reflected in this school year’s budget, district officials said.

The district was also able to use state Economic Impact Aid money to upgrade school computer labs, a presentation on the technology plan offered Tuesday said.

Even with the Measure A money, the district will face some challenges in its effort to get its schools’ technology up to speed. Shemwell said Alameda’s schools – like others in the state – are five to 10 years behind in their deployment of technology, and the speed at which it advances makes new purchases obsolete quickly.

“This is a costly, costly endeavor. And you could easily triple that $250,000 amount and still not necessarily move us into light speed at providing technology across the district,” Shemwell said.

The head of the teachers union said she’d like the district to slow down to allow teacher input that she said was lacking in the process to draft the plan. Alameda Education Association president Gray Harris said the proposed plan offers a number of changes in teachers’ workload and in the way teachers do their job.

“I don’t think we should have a technology plan about teaching and learning without talking to the teachers about it,” Harris said.

The district’s technology committee, on which Harris sits, is slated to review it and provide comments in December and January. And administrators said some efforts to extend technology into classrooms would be subject to bargaining with the district’s unions.

While most of the 240 teachers polled about their technology usage and skills said they had intermediate or better computer, Internet and e-mail skills, more than a quarter said they lacked or possessed only beginning Internet safety and digital literacy skills and 40 percent said they lacked or had little skill with presentation and database software.

Nearly a quarter of the teachers polled said they never used or were just beginning to integrate technology into their teaching, and nearly two-thirds said that they never used or were just beginning to use technology to foster student collaboration.

“We need a huge amount of professional development for teachers to catch up and use tools that digital natives use intuitively,” McPhetridge said.

Administrators are hopeful that additional technology can boost student achievement, though the impact technology has on achievement is unclear. Shemwell said software tools like SuccessMaker, which teaches math and reading concepts to elementary and middle schoolers, offers trackable increases in student achievement. McPhetridge said technological tools could also aid the district’s nearly 2,400 English learners.

“(It’s about) how teachers use technology to benefit student where they have not succeeded in the past,” he said.

A spreadsheet listing the district’s Measure A technology purchases and another document listing vendors are linked at the bottom of this story.

Related: District releases Measure A spending list